How to Jump Start Custom SoCs with ARM’s DesignStart Portal



Custom System on Chip (SoC) devices are becoming a cost-effective alternative to the traditional discrete IC board designs. ARM provides the DesignStart portal on its website, offering free of charge access to semiconductor IP for the design of custom SoCs, with low-cost licensing for the commercialization phase. IP includes the ARM® Cortex®-M0 processor and ARM Artisan® Physical IP solutions optimized for fabrication processes at leading silicon foundries.

By Jeff Dorsch, Contributing Editor

DesignStart-Wave-Figure1

Figure 1: Custom SoC development is driving innovation.

Taking a customized SoC approach, an Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) can replace discrete chips on a Printed Circuit Board (PCB) for analog, baseband, interface, memory, processor, and radio-frequency functions. SoC implementations can reduce the bill-of-material costs (BOM) and shrink the device size and power consumption, while adding additional functionality, like sensor processing and wireless connectivity. BOM costs can be significantly trimmed if all functions are on one ASIC. The S3 Group estimates BOM costs can be lowered by up to 90 percent, while product size is reduced by 85 percent, comparing a single chip with a board-level design.

What kind of companies should invest in a custom SoC? A small to medium business with an existing board-level product is the typical enterprise that could benefit from a custom SoC design.

Richard Wawrzyniak, a Semico Research senior analyst, looks at a number of cost factors to see if a custom chip design will be profitable. He says, “These factors—from design to manufacturing (e.g., yield, die size, etc.) and production costs – are combined with assumptions on the Average Selling Price (ASP), market size, expected product life and others to figure out the timeframe in which a company will earn back their investment. It’s a simple goal but a very complex process to figure out.”

Can Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) calculate the cost of a custom SoC and estimate when a chip design will reach profitability, given non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs? “We use the ‘Rule of 50,’” says Donnacha O’Riordan of the S3 Group. “If you have a product where $50 in BOM costs can be saved by integrating components off the board, and if you are shipping 50,000 units of that product per year, then we can justify a custom ASIC. Obviously, there are nuances, but a basic working number is $2.5 million.”

While Samsung Electronics, Apple and Qualcomm are among the companies that have designed custom SoCs for smartphones, tablet computers and other mobile devices, it is the trend to add connected intelligence to products that will drive the next revolution in custom SoCs.

Custom SoCs for the Next wave of Embedded Intelligence

Embedded intelligence is being added to many products across many markets. The ability to provide intelligence, control and often connectivity to even the simplest of devices is driving innovation in products and services, which in turn are enabling changes in the way that we do business and live our lives.

Much of the embedded intelligence is being enabled by off-the-shelf ARM-based microcontrollers and SoCs; however, there are a growing number of cases where product manufacturers are developing ARM-based custom SoCs, integrating a particular set of mixed-signal components to offer differentiated, lower-cost and more energy-efficient products.

At this point you may be thinking that custom SoCs sound like an expensive option; this does not need to be the case. Most of these devices are based on more mature (and significantly cheaper) process technology—with the focus on reduced power leakage rather than the leading-edge performance associated with the latest process nodes. 180, 90 and 65nm are typical nodes. In addition, there are opportunities to share development wafer costs, with a set of multi-project wafer test chips only costing around $16,000.

Innovation is happening and ARM is further encouraging this by offering free access to the ARM Cortex-M0 and system IP for chip developers to design their chip.  Once ready to move to the commercialization phase, chip developers can quickly and easily access a simplified low-cost commercial license to the Cortex-M0, system IP and software tools for only $40,000. More details can be found at this web page.

Custom SoCs through DesignStart™

All of this brings us to DesignStart, the ARM portal for custom SoC design. ARM DesignStart, the IP online access portal, smooths the design process by offering easy access to a variety of ARM IP, including the ARM Cortex-M0 processor, and ARM Artisan Physical IP solutions. Cortex-M processors are well suited for Internet of Things (IoT), control, sensor and mixed-signal SoCs and the Cortex-M0 is the smallest ARM processor available.

The Cortex-M0 processor IP can be downloaded, free-of-charge, for creating proof-of-concept systems. There is also free-of-charge access to ARM IP for physical design. Having designed an SoC, designers can develop and debug their systems on hardware with a low-cost, ARM-supplied development board including field-programmable gate array (FPGA) prototyping capability.

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Figure 2: ARM DesignStart is a portal which includes free access to the ARM Cortex-M0 for development and prototyping.

The Cortex-M0 processor IP package includes a fully functional, synthesizable, full-configuration Cortex-M0 processor and a system development kit reference design. The latter includes documentation, example projects, example software, interconnect, interfaces and peripherals.

On the physical IP side, DesignStart provides access to thousands of ARM’s Artisan Physical IP products for downloading. These include ARM POP IP, embedded memory compilers, interface IP, logic IP and standard cell. Users can be enabled to browse, investigate and download ARM Artisan IP for evaluation.

This article was sponsored by ARM.

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